To enter the new home of Artists Space, a decades-old incubator for upstart art in downtown New York, you amble into an alleyway and step through a door beyond which there are four options for directions to go: up, down, left, or right. The effect can enthrall you, if you’re the type to thrill over architectural details, and it’s compounded by the fact that the doorway in the alley didn’t even exist before—and, in fact, required civic approval from the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, given that it’s a structural intervention in a cast-iron building that dates back to 1867.
Little matters that aspire toward momentous effect are part of Artists Space’s legacy and lore, and they factor in its reopening after a hiatus following its final official show at a previous home in SoHo in 2016 and a few smaller presentations at a since-shuttered Artists Space Books & Talks location nearby. Now it’s back in full form in an impressively but modestly renovated building in Tribeca, and under the stewardship of Jay Sanders, who took over as executive director and chief curator in 2017. Before then, Sanders worked as the Whitney Museum’s curator of performance for five years and, prior to that, as a director at Greene Naftali gallery and a curator for projects at White Columns, Anthology Film Archives, Electronic Arts Intermix, and a long line of other organizations integral to the New York art world. (He also co-curated, with Elizabeth Sussman, the well-received Whitney Biennial in 2012.)
The new home for Artists Space is its sixth since its founding as a nonprofit alternative space in 1972, and its two-story spread will feature exploratory exhibitions and performances in the decades to come. (The organization signed a 20-year lease after committing to renovating the building and making it a cultural center of sorts.)
The opening exhibition features work in two rooms on the upper floor by Danica Barboza, Jason Hirata, Yuki Kimura, and Duane Linklater, in a kind of group show that melds together in a hands-off, organic fashion. The lower level has so far played home to performance works by Ei Arakawa and Speaker Music, and will be used for more to come.
As programming gets underway, ARTnews spoke with Sanders about his thoughts regarding Artists Space as both an integral connector to increasingly distant downtown history and a prospective home for different kinds of projects in an art scene forever changing in terms of ambition and scale.
ARTnews: What is in the genesis of Artists Space winding up in its new location?
Jay Sanders: When it lost its last home on Greene Street, Roberta Smith, in the New York Times, made a quip about Artists Space: “May the gods of real estate and culture favor its next incarnation.” There had also been questions about whether White Columns and other nonprofits with longstanding spaces in New York could continue in their founding neighborhoods. There had been a lot of thought about whether Artists Space should be in another borough. Should it move to where more artists are living, like Ridgewood [in Queens], to keep a salience and for more affordable options? They looked in Harlem and Long Island City and other areas. I’m so happy it didn’t go in those directions.
How did it land in such a prominent site in Tribeca?
The building owners and I think the broker who was working with them read about Artists Space losing its home, and it was very good timing with the owners deciding they wanted to make a change. This building has had three owners. It’s an 1867 cast-iron building commissioned by a carpet company. Then it was a plumbing-valve factory. And then, circa 1950, General Hardware bought it and worked here. Now it’s third generation, and the grandsons of the founders of General Hardware decided to do a restoration, with the dream of it being a kind of arts building. And they had experience because Martin Weinstein, one of the grandsons, was one of the founders of [the venerable arts nonprofit] Art in General—it was called that because it was “art in General Hardware.”
How significant was the prospect of the building in making you decide to leave your job at the Whitney, and how did you think about what you did and didn’t want to do in the restoration?
It was a big enticement. But it was daunting because, though it’s an amazing opportunity, immediately following came questions about design, fundraising, and the kind of hurdles it would take to get to now. We worked with an architect who’s on our board, Martin Cox, of the firm Bade Stageberg Cox. They did Alexander and Bonin gallery, and he had worked previously for Steven Holl and had done projects for Dan Graham and Walter De Maria. Martin was a very sympathetic architect for this project—he knew the sensibility of the organization. The challenge was how to make it look like we did very little—but, basically, we had to do everything.
What kind of design decisions proved most significant to you?
The columns were a given—we just stripped the paint off, and tidied and kept all the cast-iron piers. A lot of it came from the ethos that Artists Space isn’t a museum or a gallery, so it should have a kind of feel and a room-tone—a sensibility that stands apart. For me a lot of that came from the intrinsic quality of the building, a typical cast-iron building in Lower Manhattan—like when you look at pictures of 112 Greene Street [the original home of White Columns] or go to the Walter De Maria sites [The Broken Kilometer and the The New York Earth Room, both decades-old installations still open in SoHo] or the Donald Judd house. It’s like a ’70s or ’80s artist’s loft—closer to that than, say, a ’90s Chelsea gallery with a polished concrete floor and no columns.
What was the biggest design move you made?
We had to put in the middle staircase [that greets visitors at the entrance in the alley and allows for movement either up or down or to either side]. We tried it in probably 20 places, and then we realized where it should be. The most beautiful exterior attribute is actually the alleyway, Cortlandt Alley, which is so romantic, with its narrow street and something modest about it. We petitioned the Landmarks Preservation Commission to make the side entrance, and that in a way defined all the rest of the spaces, like sculpting a middle zone. Everything fell into place once we resolved that. But that took a long time.
We were actually on the docket right after the Annabelle Selldorf plan for the Frick Collection, and I worried that there would be protests at the hearing because that had been contentious. But we were an easy thing to say “yes” to. Someone on the committee even made a joke about the Mudd Club [a storied ’70s/’80s nightclub that used to be across the street], which made me think, They must get this.
A lot of enterprises have opened all over New York since Artists Space began, especially in the past few years. What do you hope can happen at Artists Space that might not happen elsewhere?
I feel like it’s a really primary site of contact in that we commission a lot of new work. I struggle over this because I feel like so much of the language around alternative spaces is now ubiquitous. Everybody says the same thing, like “we’re artist-centric” and blah blah blah—the whole language of sort of ’70s alternative spaces is now the de facto language for talking about contemporary art spaces at all scales. So I’m trying my hardest to think of new language. I do feel that it’s a real practitioner’s space, and that the audience really is artists, curators, students, intellectuals, academics. Our audience tends to people with a real investment in art, so there’s a kind of committedness and tenacity. It’s a really active audience that often becomes participants, so that sense of it as a practitioner’s space feels really key.
How does that affect the way you try to position it in relation to other enterprises?
I think of it as a not-overtly-branded space, so that the brand and the identity always stays humble. Artists have a lot of ability here to shape and take control of the conditions of how their work is presented in an extreme way. The institutional voice can drop very low, and we’re trying to make a space that foregrounds that. Artists Space has had deep engagement with different art forms at primary levels and a lot of artists and curators fertilizing those forms. I see that as something we can continue to do.
How does that help or hurt in terms of fundraising, to distinguish Artists Space from other organizations?
Fundraising is always challenging, but one thing I feel here is that people support the ethos of the organization wholly, so I haven’t felt like it’s had to be this or that exhibition or this or that strand of work. It’s for the organization as a whole and its potentiality. I feel its legacy and history, and cultural organizations are almost like families. There are these things that pass forward in them, logical continuations, almost regardless of who is director or where the space is. I felt that at the Whitney and I’ve seen it other places that can only really be themselves, even as spaces shift or leadership shifts. After two years here, I feel that more and more.
How has the climate for city and state funding changed as other new and bigger enterprises enter onto the scene?
Every small nonprofit struggles there. Inevitably, city and state funding can’t absorb the lion’s share, so we have to look for patrons, foundations, and other support circles. Artists Space is a strange one because it was actually founded by NYSCA [the New York State Council on the Arts]. Irving Sandler was brought in to work with NYSCA on a new initiative, and this is what they came up with—a curatorial rubric of affiliated artists giving non-affiliated artists shows. The downtown community basically curated itself through Artists Space.
The opening exhibition in the new home features four artists in a way that feels like separate solo shows and a group show at once. How did you arrive upon that strategy?
I don’t want to say too much about this, because I want to foreground the artists. But we saw in the first years of Artists Space a format of, say, three or four artists doing concurrent solo shows that worked together to share space, share time, and define the conditions together in what was a really fruitful model—and not so common. You usually have solo shows or a curator-led thematic show with a narrative or a curatorial purview. But the idea of inviting artists one by one and getting them to work almost autonomously—but knowing that they would share space and try to work as an open book between them—felt right as an opening show. It wasn’t a mandate. But it felt nice to relax the curatorial point of view, to go back to the founding mission a bit.
You’ve curated lots of performance work over the course of your career. How do you plan to include performance into Artists Space’s program?
Artists Space has always had a history with performance. Right from the outset, it presented one of the first performance art festivals ever: “PersonA” [a four-night series in 1974]. During my show “Rituals of Rented Island: Object Theater, Loft Performance, and the New Psychodrama—Manhattan, 1970–1980” [a 2013 exhibition that Sanders curated at the Whitney], I realized that so much of the foundation of performance art came out of early things at Artists Space, like Jack Smith, Laurie Anderson, Ralston Farina, Ericka Beckman. But those would usually share space with exhibitions or be in between shows. I like that in the new two-story space we can fuse these things together into what I hope is a polyphonic relationship.
There are a lot of exhibition spaces clamoring for attention these days. What do you want to do that can be most different or distinguishable?
I don’t want to characterize other places, but I feel like it’s like a point-of-view thing. Artists Space is not a commercial gallery, so you’re not as readily looking at art like it’s a commodity. And because it’s not a museum, you’re looking less in terms of institutional affiliation and collections and the kind of elevation that figures in a museum. I feel like it’s an important, in some ways more neutral, space. I think it’s much-needed to engage with viewing and producing and consuming art for its intellectual and ontological characteristics, in a time when people are nihilistic about that in an art world that is so much about money and ownership and claiming things and manipulating them for gain.
How much or little do you talk about all that and Artists Space’s legacy with the artists you work with?
A lot. But we don’t want to live in the shadow of our past. Artists Space, if it’s been anything, has been a space that at any given point is really occupied by the people whose work is there. So we talk a lot about it, but hopefully in a way that doesn’t create too much weight.
Do you feel like artists make decisions at Artists Space that they might not make anywhere else?
Jana Euler has an upcoming show, and I feel like she would never make another show like it anywhere else. But she doesn’t want to say anything about what she’s doing. I do feel like people make different decisions here, but I’m a weirdo because what I love is when a place just does things and all of what we’re talking about is implicit. My favorite art experiences, whether at a music venue or a bookstore or an art show or whatever, are when you can tell the people who made them thought very, very hard about all the conditions of their medium or in their field and whatever values they have—and then all that’s translated to you, but none of it verbally and all of it only in the form.
I want this to be an experiment in form as an institution, but also a kind of model for my vision of a forward-looking organization that actually cares about art and tries to make a case for it in a moment when there’s a lot of skepticism about art and its efficacy and autonomy and ability to function outside questions of its value or its relationships to forces of power. Are there ways that, by the way you present art and the way it looks—how it sits in a room, how you advertise it—that can try to change the ground rules and create a little more spirit for things to happen? I feel like it’s a kind of dark moment right now. But what I would hope is that, through our work here, we do something that makes for an unspoken little tectonic shift. For me, I think: the less said, the better. We’re not over-branding; our press releases are really under-articulated. But I think that’s the only pathway right now, because spin and rhetoric and claims feel deadly in the culture in general. I’m just trying to go the other way a bit.